For lack of maintenance, around 50% of the agar gardens the government set up in Moulvibazar between 1998 and 2006 have been completely destroyed.
The forest department and the beneficiaries of social forestry have blamed each other for the loss.
In view of the huge potential of agar perfume sector, the forest department undertook two projects to create and maintain new agar forests on fallow, uncultivated land in the district.
Under the projects, agar gardens were established in forest areas of Moulvibazar, Sylhet and Chattogram. But both the projects failed to bring forth the expected results as the number of trees in the gardens started to decrease after the completion of the project tenure due to lack of maintenance.
Trees were stolen and in many places, beneficiaries started cultivating lemons in agar gardens eyeing big profits in the short term. As a result, less than half of the gardens have survived.
During recent visits to different agar gardens in Moulvibazar, it was found that different other trees have been planted in the gardens. Agar trees no longer exist in many gardens. Numerous lemon trees have replaced the agar trees. Most of the agar orchards built under the Forest Department's Wildlife Management and Nature Conservation Department have been destroyed.
Forest officials said beneficiaries were supposed to take care of the gardens built under the social forestry projects while the beneficiaries alleged that the forest department did not provide any help to them after planting the saplings.
Agar atar, or agar perfume, one of the main industries of Moulvibazar, is produced from agar trees.
Sources said agar atar worth several hundred crores of taka is exported every year to different Middle Eastern and European countries.
The first project
According to the Forest Department, the Pilot Project for Agar Plantation was undertaken in 1998. The cost of the project was estimated at Tk15.13 crore, for the creation and maintenance of 5,000 hectares of new forests across the country.
Agar gardens were created in the forest of Sylhet, Chattogram and the hill districts in between 1996 and 2004, at a cost of Tk2.9 crores on 785.67 hectares of land. The project expired in June 2006.
The second project
The second Agar project was adopted in July 2006. The five-year project was completed in 2011. Under this project, the Sylhet Forest Department planted agar trees on 665 hectares of land in Moulvibazar.
Of these, agar trees were planted on 179 hectares of land in Juri range during 2008-2011, on 189 hectares in Baralekha range during 2007-2011, on 206 hectares in Rajkandi range in Kamalganj during 2008-2011, on 80 hectares in Moulvibazar range during 2008-2011, and on 80 hectares of land in Kulaura range during 2008-2009.
Blame gaming goes on
According to Wildlife Management and Nature Conservation Department sources, under the 2006 project, agar was planted on 425 hectares of land in Moulvibazar Sadar Range, Srimangal and Satchhari Range under Habiganj.
As per their own information, no agar trees now exist in those gardens. And among other gardens, only 30% have survived.
"To make a big profit in a short time, beneficiaries of agar gardens have turned to lemon cultivation now," alleged forest officials.
Asked if the forest department had any responsibility in that case, they said the forest department was allocated a two-year budget to take care of the planted agar saplings. Later, after two years, beneficiaries destroyed their own orchards cultivating lemons as forest officials were no longer present in the field.
The beneficiaries, however, blame the forest department for the destruction of their agar gardens.
Haris Mia and Faruk Hossain, two beneficiaries from Kalapur area under Srimangal upazila of the district, said the forest department did not plant as many saplings as had been planned. Moreover, many seedlings died immediately after having been planted.
They said that the place remained vacant as more saplings were not replanted there. In those empty places, they have planted different fruit trees, including lemons, as a companion crop.
"The few agar trees still standing are the fruit of our own labour," they claimed.
Monayem Hossain, an official of Wildlife Management and Nature Conservation Department's Srimangal Range, said lemons are not a companion crop. The department allows small crops like ginger, and turmeric in agar gardens – or other afforestation projects – as companion or auxiliary crops, as they are not harmful for the main tree or garden. But the beneficiaries of agar gardens did not abide by the rules.
Sylhet Divisional Forest Officer SM Sajjad Hossain said that the condition or main theme of social forestry is that the beneficiaries would work hand in hand with the forest department to protect the forest.
"They are not supposed to plant any other trees in the agar gardens without the department's approval," he said, adding that they would check the documents and take necessary action against the wrongdoers.
Agar atar of Moulvibazar is exported to: Dubai, Kuwait, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, Qatar, Oman, Yemen, and some European countries. Agar perfume worth Tk400 crore is exported abroad every year. Agar atar produced in Bangladesh is in high demand in the Middle East, but the supply does not meet demand.